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Clover solar farm up again for permit / February 24, 2020
A proposed solar energy project in the Clover area is back on the table after it was withdrawn last year amid pushback by Halifax County supervisors who argued solar power was a bad deal, revenue-wise, for Halifax County.

The project, Piney Creek Solar, is planned at Rodgers Chapel Road and Mill Road, on 778.51 acres owned by Black Walnut Land and Timber Company, LLC. The 80-megawatt solar panel array would take up 502 acres, leaving the rest of the land for scenic buffer and other uses.

On Tuesday, the Halifax County Planning Commission approved the project, with standard conditions in place for minimizing the impact on neighbors. Piney Creek Solar will go before the Board of Supervisors for final permit approval at the next regular monthly board meeting Monday, March 2.

Hexagon Energy, the project’s Charlottesville-based developer, originally applied for the site permit in March 2019, around the same time that supervisors voted to delay consideration of all new solar projects. Supervisors said a cap on new permits was needed to draw attention to the paltry revenue that counties gain from solar projects.

Since that time, local officials across Virginia have pushed the General Assembly to rewrite the tax rules for solar-related equipment. Currently, large-scale utility solar farms receive an 80 percent local property tax exemption, while smaller projects below 20 megawatts are 100 percent tax-exempt.

About half a dozen bills that are nearing passage in the legislature would give local governments a larger share of revenue from solar projects, either by reducing the tax exemption over time or by allowing localities to enter into revenue-sharing agreements with developers.

“From my perspective, we are very pleased,” said County Administrator Scott Simpson, who has traveled to the state capitol three times over the past two weeks to lobby lawmakers on solar-related legislation. “It’s a very large gain from a revenue perspective.”

Under a revenue-sharing approach, Halifax could nearly triple the amount of money it receives from a solar generation facility that produces 80 MW of electricity — the proposed size of the Piney Creek project near Clover.

Under current state law, Simpson said, Halifax County would collect about $110,000 annually in property taxes, declining over time as the equipment depreciates. The anticipated revenue haul over the 35-year lifespan for such a project is $1.48 million, Simpson said.

With a revenue-sharing agreement in place between Halifax and the developer, the 35-year payout to the county would rise to $3.9 million.

“It’s basically an addition to $2.5 million out of those annual [35-year] revenues,” Simpson said.

The difference each year would add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in new revenue, possibly matching or exceeding the sum that Halifax gains by raising the real estate tax by a penny, about $375,000. The county has issued permits for six solar generation projects, with more proposals likely to follow in the future.

Permitted projects in Halifax County range in size from 51 MW to 91 MW. The largest facility, Foxhound Solar, is planned for the Clover area, at Green Valley and Mt. Laurel Roads. Longroad Energy is the developer.

Other solar arrays have been permitted in the Crystal Hill, Alton, Scottsburg and Nathalie areas. Construction is expected to begin soon on the 80-MW Water Strider facility near Stage Coach Road, Jenny’s Ruff Trail, and Bull Creek Road in Nathalie. That project is owned by Con Edison Development, which voluntarily struck a revenue-sharing deal and presented the county with a $1 million check in December.

There are four bills under consideration in the House of Delegates and three in the state Senate “that we’re following closely,” said Simpson, who is part of a group of local officials who have pressed for changes in current tax law. While the bills take somewhat different approaches and must be reconciled in the legislature before heading to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law, “I believe we stand to be treated pretty favorably,” said Simpson.

Counties have pressed for changes in tandem with solar developers, who have offered their own ideas for sharing the economic gains from solar energy projects. Hexagon, which wants to build the Piney Creek array on Rodgers Chapel Road, has been one of the companies in the forefront of negotiations with counties as all parties have crafted an approach to take to the General Assembly.

With legislative action that allows Halifax to reap greater revenue from solar energy, Simpson said the county is likely to be welcoming of further permit requests in the future.

“I would say the door has always been open for the permitting of these projects, and the additional revenue helps ease concerns over the unknown impacts with these projects down the road,” he said.

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It is wrong to charge a solar farm or anyone else less property tax than someone who owns land for a home, a farm, or for timber growth. If you are going to charge retired farmers hundreds of dollars/month in tax on land they have owned and farmed for decades, then solar 'farmers' should pay just as much.

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